Cymraeg + COVID = ?
It may have been a sudden marriage between the pandemic and remote technology but it had an extremely positive effect on adult learners. Gwent College’s Welsh for Adults department reports that ‘moving to online learning has increased learner numbers by 25% on our weekly courses and nearly 75% on our top-up courses such as the Speaking Saturdays and the weekend courses.’
This is reflected in the volume of people learning Welsh on Duolingo – the number of new Welsh learners using the app rose by 44% in 2020, making it top in UK fastest growing languages. Indeed, in the 3-month period since October 2020, Duolingo figures for Welsh were up by 100,000 and the app has now aligned course content with the National Centre for Learning Welsh. National figures will be available after this academic year is over however figures for 2019-2020 were already 32% up on the previous year even though most of it was pre-pandemic. If these trends are anything to go by it is fair to expect another increase in national figures for 2020-21.
From an informal learning point of view, Coleg Gwent reports record figures for its conversation clubs and book clubs even though there aren’t as many of them taking place online. Accessing sessions from the comfort of your own home without having to travel means more people can take part. Learning has become more accessible. Virtual will now be a key element of provision moving forward as a combination of in-person and online will become the preferred, more effective norm.
As the facilitator of a weekly conversation club* I can vouch for the convenience of virtual sessions, even if I’d quite like to leave the house for a cappuccino and a slice of carrot cake occasionally. So, thank goodness for the adult learner sector, a marriage of convenience which turned out well.
In other positive news there was an increase of 182% in the average number of viewers of S4C’s children’s programmes since the beginning of lockdown while RhAG (Parents for Welsh Medium Education) responded to the wishes of struggling parents like myself by setting up a new website, Welsh4Parents.cymru, to gather resources in one central place to help and support the learning and using of Welsh at home.
To the difficult part: the effect of Covid19 on Welsh Medium education and on Welsh in the community.
Writing from the privileged point of view of a fluent speaker who was able to maintain the language at home throughout both lockdowns I see how difficult the pandemic must have been for children from non-Welsh speaking families. On our daily lockdown walks, I would encounter parents doing their absolute best to support their children’s Welsh Medium education while also juggling their own careers. They did an amazing job under the circumstances, but the fact remains that for children who do not have Welsh at home, the immersion provided by their school is of paramount importance to first obtaining and then maintaining linguistic fluency and competency. In some extreme cases the challenge was too great and parents transferred their children to English medium schools. A Welsh Government survey of current learners aged 16 or older at the end of 2020 received 6,088 responses, of which 15% were fluent in Welsh. Most (79%) were satisfied with the availability of Welsh medium resources but that doesn’t address the issue of how they coped with missing out on the immersive experience.
For anyone under 16 years of age in South East Wales, where most Welsh Medium pupils come from non-Welsh speaking families, the knock-on effects of lockdown were to be heard when schools re-opened in March and April. There was very little Welsh being used on the school yard and a process of recouping the language began. A few months down the line and things are slowly improving – there is more Welsh during playtimes – but one primary education professional told me it is going to take up to a year to get things back on track.
Moving away from education, but staying with our youngsters, the brutal social effects of two lockdowns have been felt in many quarters, from Welsh playgroups which feed into Cylch Meithrin nurseries to Welsh youth clubs, to Welsh language outdoor activity centres and to the Urdd Eisteddfod moving online two years on the trot, our young Welsh speakers and learners have been deprived of the chance to use Welsh in the community, during fun activities, while playing sport, and in the arts. Although Mudiad Meithrin, the Urdd and every Welsh Language Initiative organisation have done a fantastic job of moving things online it is quite simply not the same.
For us adults, who wants to be on their computer all day to then join an online social event in the evening? My local monthly Clwb Gwawr get-togethers were reduced to a socially distanced deckchair in the park affair and a virtual Christmas Special. We have missed out on countless festivals – the National Eisteddfod, music festivals, agricultural shows, all the places where Welsh could be spoken and celebrated. Ultra-local events, often the lifeblood of a community, were wiped out. My parents, now in their ‘golden years’, are not digitally connected and have been effectively cut off from all their Welsh language activities. At least they had each other to talk to?
Finally, to address the issue of people moving from urban areas to rural Welsh speaking strongholds and its effect on the housing market and by default the Welsh language. Now that’s a hefty aspect of the Covid effect. Unfortunately/ fortunately, blogs have a 1,000-word limit and I’d better stop before heading down that particular rabbit hole. Another time perhaps.
In part two of this series, we’ll be exploring how everyone in Wales can support the effort to reach a million speakers by 2050.
*Bethan’s Friday afternoon conversation club for intermediate and advanced learners ‘Siawns am Sgwrs’ can be found in Duolingo’s events section, during term time, or you can email her at: Bethan.Harrington@coleggwent.ac.uk